Columbia University Protest

Ivy League Uprising: Remembering Columbia ‘68

How rage over civil-rights setbacks and the Vietnam War exploded into bloody chaos between students and cops.

Around noon on April 23, 1968, more than 100 student activists at Columbia University converged at the landmark sundial at the center of campus, united in the sentiment that they’d had enough — enough of their school’s plans to build in a public park an athletic facility derided among the school’s Harlem neighbors as “Gym Crow,” and enough of the administration’s complicity in the Vietnam War. Over the next few days the protest would splinter but grow in scope, with students occupying five buildings and holding a dean hostage in one of them. But the revolt at Columbia partly grabbed the world’s attention for the way that it ended — in a violent melee between students and overzealous officers of the New York Police Department, who indiscriminately beat and arrested hundreds of people after university officials called them in.

Fifty years later, take a look at the historic upheaval on the Ivy League campus, another watershed moment in a most turbulent year of rage and resistance.

A REELING CAMPUS Steve Schapiro/Getty Images A REELING CAMPUS

Day One: After the gathering at the sundial (pictured), student activists marched to Morningside Park and tore down part of the fence that surrounded the unfinished gym’s construction site. They believed the proposed facility amounted to de facto segregation due to the separate-and-unequal access seemingly baked into its design. “You cannot understand the Columbia student revolt without understanding that it happened three weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, on April 4,” recalled Juan Gonzalez, a student activist who participated in the revolt. “At that point, it wasn’t a question of what career you were going to choose, it was a question of whether the country would survive a civil war.”

THE RACIAL LINE Bettmann/Bettmann Archive THE RACIAL LINE

The first campus facility protesters seized was Hamilton Hall, Columbia’s main undergraduate building. Students found the school’s acting dean, Henry Coleman, inside and held him captive for 24 hours. (However, they did not mistreat Coleman, popular among students, and he even wrote recommendation letters for some of his captors later.) Two major student groups led the uprising: the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), whose members were mostly white, and the Student Afro-American Society (SAS). Although the two were in coalition, they advocated for different agendas: Most black students, fed up with Columbia’s aggressive land grabbing in Harlem, primarily wanted the gym gone, while white students demanded that the university withdraw research support for the Vietnam War.


On the second day of the occupation, the black activists of SAS asked white students to leave Hamilton to keep their protests separate. Among the reasons, as activists from both sides later reflected: concerns over the SDS activists’ lack of discipline and their relative inexperience with organized protest. (Pictured: Outside Hamilton Hall, civil rights activists Stokely Carmichael, left, and H. Rap Brown, right, express solidarity with students occupying that building.)

THE RADICAL APPROACH Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images THE RADICAL APPROACH

After leaving Hamilton, the student activists of SDS, led by Mark Rudd, pictured, stormed the Low Library and barricaded the office of President Grayson Kirk (though the president wasn’t inside). Over the following days they took over three more buildings. Rudd — who was quickly thrust into media celebrity for leading the demonstration — and other prominent SDS student leaders would later form the Weather Underground, a left-wing militant organization that executed bombings, jailbreaks, and other dangerous, radical activities through the 1970s.

ANTI-WAR AGENDA New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images ANTI-WAR AGENDA

Two protesters fly a Viet Cong flag from the top of the Mathematics Building. Ire on campus over Columbia’s involvement in the war had been building since March 1967, when students uncovered the university’s ties with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a weapons research think tank affiliated with the Department of Defense.

AMNESTY OFF THE TABLE Bettmann/Bettmann Archive AMNESTY OFF THE TABLE

A professor finds an entrance blocked during the sit-ins. Students vowed to occupy the buildings until the university met their three demands: halt the gym construction, sever ties with IDA, and grant amnesty to student protesters (meaning those who participated would not be disciplined). Faculty members attempted to mediate between the students and the university administration, which refused students amnesty.

THE MAJORITY COALITION Bettmann/Bettmann Archive THE MAJORITY COALITION

Meanwhile, conservative students and faculty members against the activists shutting down the campus formed a counter-protest group called the Majority Coalition (whose supporters included future New York governor George Pataki, then a law student at Columbia). They acted to seal off the occupied buildings, hoping to force protesters out by cutting off their food supplies. (Pictured: student activists and counter-protesters brawl.)

AN END IN CHAOS New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images AN END IN CHAOS

Finally, on April 30, after failed negotiations, President Kirk called upon the NYPD, whose officers had been stationed outside the campus for days, to act. Around 1,000 special unit officers moved in on the SDS-held sites, some of them beating bloody hundreds of students — protesters and counter-protesters alike — with batons and flashlights.


The situation at Hamilton Hall unfolded differently, with black students marching out of the building peacefully and facing arrests by a black-led police unit.

BLOODY AWAKENING Steve Schapiro/Getty Images BLOODY AWAKENING

The police brutality shocked and infuriated the campus community, including many sideliners and those who’d initially supported the university. Thousands of students and faculty members went on strike, shutting down the campus for the rest of the semester.

DISPUTED LEGACY Steve Schapiro/Getty Images DISPUTED LEGACY

Decades after the protest that caught the world’s attention, many who were involved disagree about its impact. Some contend that the radical tactics of the uprising hurt Columbia’s enrollment and donations, and more, the university’s neutral position as an academic institute for intellectual freedom. Still, others claim the protest as a success, with the protesters not only achieving specific short-term goals — Columbia halted the gym’s construction, cut ties with the IDA, and President Kirk resigned that August — but also creating a ripple effect of political engagement on campuses around the nation.